Monday, January 31, 2011

Central Market, Then and Now

You should have seen us, the first time Mignon Young and Alice Reedholm brought us to Central Market for lunch. I had no idea where the hell we were; it felt like we were in a supermarket. Why in the hell were my friends from high school taking me and my wife to a supermarket?? For a moment I thought it might be some sort of practical joke. Then I heard Mignon's younger son, Jackson, excitedly ask permission to go to the playground. Before she could answer, he was gone.



Now we were REALLY confused. So wait, we're at a supermarket. In the middle of a city. And there's a playground? What gives? Jeanette and I exchange a look and I consider asking Mignon if she's not a bit worried about letting Jackson run off like that, while we go to order our food at the supermarket. As New Yorkers, we are suspicious, but then we go out back to get the full effect of the picnic area. There are shade trees everywhere, and barefoot children running and cris-crossing, so that you have to dodge them on your way to your table. In the distance there is a small pond with geese and ducks floating around, and a giant live oak tree with children adorning it like Christmas tree ornaments.



The food was delicious, much to my surprise. And sure enough, Jackson found his way to our table, ate some pizza and zoomed off again to climb something somewhere. When we got back to our hotel, Jeanette and I discussed how freaked out we both were. Though it turned out to be a pleasant dining experience, we both found it completely foreign and well, weird, to borrow a phrase.



Today, nearly three years later, Central Market on North Lamar has become a haunt of ours. My friend Seth Levin has a blog ingeniously called "Dadventures in Beantown" in which he features all the cool things he does with his two sons in the Boston area. I would consider submitting this blog as a guest piece -- a "Dadventure in the ATX" -- or something, because we spend many a Saturday or Sunday there, Jeanette doing the shopping for the week, while I sit by the playground reading, emailing and drinking Shiner Bocks, and the boys do what boys do best -- run in merry circles, playing tag with total strangers and defying gravity on playground equipment.



It is now so familiar that I'm convinced my car could find its way there on its own if it had to. (I won't try it, so don't worry.) We are no longer concerned for even a second about letting the boys go and be on their own as we sit and guard our food from the grackles who swoop in at the first opportunity when you turn your head. There's live music on a regular basis, because this is Austin, after all. And there's even a really cool cooking school where Jeanette and I have taken a couple of classes, as have the boys.

If you come and visit us here in Austin, we may very well take you to Central Market, and although you may at first wonder why the hell we're taking you there, give it a chance. You'll understand, and you'll enjoy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"My" Band

Say what you will about them, and there are those among you who will say some pretty nasty things, U2 is my band. It's not that I own every single they've ever produced, or that I have a collection of rare U2 EP's -- I don't. I've only been to see them once (which I'll get to later). I know people, like my former colleague at New Visions for Public Schools, Gwen Baker, who have seen them many, many times and could lay more convincing claim to them than I can.

That said, they are mine.

I can just hear the wincing now, particularly from my music biz friends like Jem Aswad and Ken Weinstein. From an "Industry" standpoint, I'm sure they're quite correct in pointing out that U2's time has come and gone, that they should gracefully step aside and make room for the Young Turks coming up behind them, and that they run the danger of becoming an aging parody of themselves.

Doesn't matter. They rock.

I've also heard many people trash Bono. They brand him pretentious and overrated as a vocalist. They suggest that his never-ending altruism in the third world is nothing more than self-aggrandizement at worst, Catholic guilt at best.

Could be, could be. Don't care. He's got soul.

Maybe it's just a personal thing. They came into my life just as it was opening up. I may have heard "I Will Follow" on the radio, along with the rest of the world, in 1980, but the first time I remember listening intently to the "Boy" album was with Roger Bodine as freshmen at Syracuse University. Both he and Jem were responsible for opening up my musical appreciation from the classic rock and top-40 I'd heard during high school. Both (especially Jem) had extensive record collections; thanks to his job at Desert Shore Records Jem's was constantly expanding, taking over his dorm room. That album sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before. It touched me. It's on my iPod now, and when those songs come up, thirty years later, they still reach deep.

I got to see them live at Cayuga Community College in Auburn, New York on April 27, 1983. I had seen a few concerts by then, but not many. None of them came close to this one. To say that my friends and I got "caught up" in that performance would be an understatement. They took me somewhere else that night; the whole gym, which wasn't much bigger than my high school gymnasium, seemed to lift up from its foundations at one point. I was only twenty years old, so I don't think I realized exactly what was going on at the time. Looking back now, I don't have much more to offer by way of an explanation. All I can say is that I was moved by their music. I was transported.
It was shortly after this show that U2 exploded into superstardom with their performance during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. A few years after that "Joshua Tree" came out, and I still list it as one of my Perfect Albums, a "Desert-Island Disc," I guess you could say, right up there with "Songs in the Key of Life," "What's Going On," "Pet Sounds," and "American Idiot." Because he has a memory like a steel trap, I'm sure he could tell the story better, but I recall sitting in a bar with Jem near his apartment on First Avenue and First Street in Manhattan and hearing the record for the first time. As I remember it, they played it all the way through, and the few of us at the bar stopped our conversations to listen and were generally astounded by what we'd heard.
U2 is now more or less considered a "classic rock" band. Unlike the Stones, the Beatles, or the Who, they don't belong to my parents' generation, or even my older brother's. I came of age in the 1980's and they were my soundtrack. As a result, I'll always think of U2 as "my" band, and will stubbornly keep cynicism out of the conversation. And I will always, always, look forward to what they will come out with next.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

So Much More Than Just "Things and Stuff"



The pages of my mother's scrapbook are yellowed and crumbling fast. The photos, like this one taken in Des Moines, Iowa at 3 years old, are black and white, and they too are beginning to fade. My hope is to preserve this book, innocently titled "Things and Stuff," by scanning its pages and saving it digitally. I'm not sure how well this will work, but it's certainly worth a try. I've talked about doing what Jeanette suggests -- having it restored and/or preserved by an expert in this sort of thing -- but I've never actually gotten around to it, and I'm not so sure that I ever will. Scanning just seems more likely to me.

The title is ironic, in that the things found inside this scrapbook are so much more than mere stuff, and I don't just mean this from my entirely biased point of view as my mother's son. Rather, I believe, the more I study its contents, that this book is an important historical document. My mother was born in 1930, just at the start of the Great Depression. Her father worked extremely hard in the maintenance department on the Rock Island Railroad throughout those lean years, just to keep from going under, the way he'd seen so many of contemporaries do. It makes me wonder how much it cost him to dress his young child in this dress and baby shoes, what kinds of discussions he and my grandmother had to have about whether or not to buy her the doll in this picture, and if they ever considered selling the cast iron Jack Russell terrier doorstop, which I still have today.

As the pages progress, you find newspaper clippings declaring the end of World War II, when my mother was fifteen years old. ("Peace! Remember how it came on the night of August 14, 1945? No matter where it caught you -- on Times Square, Market Square or Main Street -- the big news made a noise like the birth of a bright new world.") Suddenly, the world had changed completely. A new era of prosperity came about, just as my mother was graduating from high school, in 1947. She had no way of knowing, of course, that exactly ten years later, that school, Little Rock Central High, would become the first integrated public high school in the south.

The book has many of the other usual items you'd find in this sort of compilation. In fact, my mother checked off the "rough outline" provided in the book's introduction:

  • your pet dance programs
  • goony telegrams
  • menus from your favorite haunts
  • place cards from fun parties
  • dreamy birthday cards
  • snapshots of friends and fiends
  • gift and corsage cards
  • items from the school paper
  • funny valentines
  • a page of autographs from the gang
  • invitations

In addition to these items, there are some other interesting things, as well. There are pencil drawings my mother did of her teachers, parents and friends. There is evidence of various honors, including mention of "first place in the statewide short story contest of the Little Rock chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters," "The Distinction of Being the Most Gorgeous Girl, awarded to Carol Runyan on the night of the Delta Phi Omega spring dinner dance, June 23rd in the year of our Lord, 1949," and her signed membership card to the National Junior Honor Society of Secondary Schools. There is a letter from a German pen pal and former soldier named Klaus, dated June 28th, 1948, in which he states, "I was wounded [in Holland] and came to a hospital for three weeks. Then I came to the Air Force headquarters in Berlin. I often saw there Herman Goering, Hitler and Goebbels." Enclosed with his letter is a studio portrait, date stamped April 1943, in which he looks like a boy, leaning forward, perhaps a little bit scared of what his future may hold. Like a movie star, he has signed it "As ever, Klaus." She has several letters from a sailor in the British Navy named Arthur, with whom she also corresponded.

I'm both thrilled and sad to learn new things about Carol as I flip through the decaying pages -- that she was a member of a Masonic girls' group called the Rainbow Girls, that she lived in Trenton, Missouri, Rock Island, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa, and Molline, Illinois, all before the age of four. I say sad, only because I'd love nothing more than to be able to ask her about all these little gems I've uncovered here.

I believe what I'd like to do is this: I would like to contact someone in Little Rock, some sort of Historical Society archivist, and see what the interest would be in restoring and/or preserving the items in my mother's scrapbook. They might be able to help me find someone in my mother's family or group of friends who is still alive. And if that were the case, maybe I could have some of these questions answered after all...

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Home Town's Brush With Greatness

As I've mentioned in a previous post, Manor, where I now live, is a small town. There is a block of four store fronts, with a corrugated tin awning over the sidewalk, and an old-fashioned water tower, pictured at right.


Downtown Manor has always evoked a strong feeling in me; I'm not sure why. Recently, however, I've come to learn that they filmed "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (directed by Lasse Hallstrom, 1993) here, and suddenly that feeling makes a lot more sense.


I watched the movie the summer after its release, on DVD, or probably VHS, at a rented house in Big Indian, New York, in 1994. It was a summer of healing, as I was coming off of a divorce, as were a couple of my friends at the time. I spent most of my healing time drinking and doing other things to "self-medicate," as they say. Generally, it was a lot of fun. A good distraction -- "just what the doctor ordered."


I fell in love with the film, because it has all the aspects of films I tend to enjoy: quirky characters, a strong sense of place, and no guns or loud explosions. The director's previous film, "My Life as a Dog," is one of my favorites, so when I heard it was the same director, I was excited to see "Gilbert Grape". Leonardo DiCaprio, who was basically an unknown at the time, was unbelievable in the role of Arnie. Johnny Depp was, as usual, strong in the title role. Good supporting performances by Juliette Lewis, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, and Crispin Glover. And Darlene Cates, the 500+-pound non-actress they recruited to play Gilbert and Arnie's mother managed to steal the movie from all these name actors.


As the film came to its climax, and Arnie faced a harsh realization (I won't say more, in case you haven't seen it; and by the way, you really should), I lost it. I didn't just cry. I didn't just bawl. I didn't just weep. My emotions exploded out of me, and I was lucky to have my good friend, Susan Dreyer (who has always said she wants to write a piece about that Big Indian summer called "Bridesmaid to a Divorce") there to pat me on the back and remind me that everything was going to be all right in due time.


Since learning that the movie was filmed here where I live, I have been giddy. I smile as I pass the iconic silver-painted water tower (pictured, above) that Arnie climbed up. I have plans to go look for the Grapes' house (it's out on Route 973, by the new football stadium), and, yes, I took a picture of the sidewalk in front of Manor Grocery, where Johnny Depp scrawled his initials and the date of the production, 1/93.


If I seem a bit star-struck, it's really not about that. Instead, I think it's just this odd convergence of an emotional moment in my past, and where I am living right now. Who knew, back when I watched this film in the summer of 1994, that I would eventually live in the small town that played such a large part in the lives of those characters? It's just so random. And yet somehow, deep in my core, it makes absolutely perfect sense, too.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Whole Facial Hair Thing














Things change when you grow your beard. People treat you differently. They look at you as if they owe you money, as if they need to keep their backs to the wall and their eyes on the door. Maybe it's just me, I don't know.
The first time I was aware that facial hair mattered was one night back in the mid-1970's, when I was sitting at my tray table having dinner, watching "Star Trek" reruns on the big Magnavox color TV that my dad had bought because it came with an autographed replica of Hank Aaron's baseball bat. The one he broke Babe Ruth's record with. My dad mounted the bat above his office doorway downstairs.
Somehow, in a parallel universe, Mr. Spock was still Mr. Spock, but, well, Evil. He was Evil Spock. Aside from his powder-blue tunic being a little more "butch" than the little pajama shirt he normally wore around the Enterprise, the most obvious characteristic that distinguished Evil Spock from Regular Spock was a Fu Manchu goatee (pictured above). Mr. Spock was always bad-ass -- don't get me wrong. Even with the baby blue jammies. But man, with that beard, he was BAAAAD-ASS! My brother and I loved that episode, and always made sure to call each other in when it came on.
Probably the most distinctive mustachioed gentleman I know would be Brooklyn musician Gerald Menke. Menke (above, center) takes pride in the care and grooming of his 'stache, even entering (and winning) a local moustache-growing contest at a Red Hook tavern. One evening, he and his wife, my friend and former colleague, arts-educator/actress/vocalist Genevieve de Gaillande, were visiting with us in our apartment on Vanderbilt Street in Brooklyn. Actually, it wasn't just any night, it was Oscar night. We made a big deal of it, putting out a red carpet (literally), so that people could make an entrance arriving at our Oscar party.
The group was small but enthusiastic and in good spirits. At one point, Jeanette's best friend, and the godmother of our son, Diego, Johanna Fernandez, looked Menke right in the eye and said, in her best American History Professor voice, "Now, Gerald, will you please explain the moustache for me? Because I'm not getting it."
There was an awkward silence, during which I started crafting my apology for our friend's bluntness, but it ended quickly, as Menke cracked a big smile and explained his adventure in the moustache contest. His manner was so pleasant, and so self-effacing that it defused any tension that had been there before. Genevieve, however, had a protective expression on her face, and I made a mental note to keep her and Johanna far apart for the rest of the evening. Which I did.
And to be fair, some people just have strong reactions to facial hair. I actually had a friend and former colleague lean over to me before starting a meeting, and quietly whisper to me that his wife didn't like for him to grow facial hair, because beards make her think of child molesters. I stroked the goatee I'd grown over the winter break. "Hmmm," I answered, "how interesting."
The most important thing is that my wife Jeanette likes it. She's the one who will need to live with it, kiss it, and smell it. Ultimately, the decision is mine to make, but her decision is right there with mine, neck and neck. And she LIKES it. My five year old son also likes my beard, because, as he explains it, I will soon look like Santa. (Thanks, kid. Thanks a bunch.)
And I like it, too. The people who are intimidated or otherwise freaked out by it will just have to live with it.
Until my next "look" comes calling.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Our Fear of Chaos Boring Our Students to Death?

Sometimes, when I visit the many schools I am asked to visit in my line of work, I ask myself the question, "Are we going about this whole education thing all wrong?" Classrooms start to look the same to me after a while. There are kids sitting there, listening to a teacher who has got good intentions for them. Occasionally, that teacher is using some interesting technology, and once in a while they even let the students get their hands on it.

Now before those of you who are teachers start getting your backs up, let me say this post is not yet another attack, blaming the teachers for what's wrong in the world today. There's plenty of blame to go around for that. I'm just wondering when we're going to stop doing the same thing, over and over again.

I'd like to think I did things a little differently when I was a teacher. Because we were a "School of Last Resort" at Satellite Academy High School, we had a great deal of autonomy. The prevailing feeling we got from the Powers-That-Be in our district was "Do what you have to do with these kids, because we've tried everything."

So, our alternative school was truly alternative at one time. We did portfolio assessment and projects. Cooperative Learning was present in nearly every class. It wasn't unusual to see team-taught, interdisciplinary classes like the one Susan (a Social Studies teacher) and I (an English teacher) taught called "Power" about the permutations of power in politics and literature. I taught a college-style Creative Writing Workshop class. Because I could.

It seems that in traditional schools we set up our classrooms to prevent young people from interacting with one another. At Satellite, I thrived on the interactions of my students, not only in that writing class, but in advisory and all my other classes, as well. And it wasn't just us humanities teachers, either. Our math and science teachers were constantly putting our students into groups and pushing them to ask questions and to THINK together.

Sure, it was loud, and sometimes feathers got ruffled. But you could feel the learning happening. And you could see the excitement in the faces of the students. This is the kind of school I want to run someday.

It's not okay for us to bore our children into submission anymore. We've been doing it for too long, and it's time for it to stop.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Thank you, Erik Estrada

When people ask me the question, "So, how did you guys end up in Austin?" there are two answers I can give. I usually size up both the audience and the venue, before deciding which answer is most appropriate.
Basically, there is a short version, and then there's the long version, and the latter involves the hunky man on the left, Mr. Frank "Ponch" Ponciarello himself, Erik Estrada.
First, let me give you the short version: If the audience appears to be someone looking for a "serious" conversation, or if the venue is a place that is staid and/or formal, I'll go with this one. "Well, you know, we had a small apartment in Brooklyn and two boys that were getting bigger every day. We were basically priced out of homes the size we needed, so we just moved farther and farther out, and we ended up in Texas." I usually accompany the comment with a wry smile (not unlike the one Erik is flashing in the photo), and that's the end of that.
If I feel we have a little more time, however, and if the mood is right, I'll say, "You mean I haven't told you the story?" And then I'll launch into it.
One day, just before Labor Day in 2007, Jeanette decided to stay home from work due to a nasty hangover. Our kids were in the care of their grandparents in Santo Domingo at the time, so we were feeling carefree and in full "summer mode," which probably explains Jeanette's state that day.
In order to amuse herself, my bride surfed through the cable channels, when suddenly, there he was, the man of her pre-adolescent dreams. Ponch.
"We're so certain you'll love our properties in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, we will pay for you and a loved one to fly to Austin and stay in a three-star hotel."
She began writing down phone numbers and before long she was on the line with a very nice man. "What's the fine print?" she asked. "What's the obligation?" "No obligation, ma'am. I'll just take down your information, and you'll receive your tickets via email. Our properties sell themselves."
Once she was convinced that we wouldn't be taken for a ride, she called me and instructed me to let my boss know that we'd be taking an extra long weekend. I did as I was told.
They picked us up at Bergstrom airport and transported us in a van, with a few other couples who had apparently been reeled in by Estrada, to the Double Tree Hotel on 15th and Guadalupe. We had a great room with a nice view of the UT campus, and just to give you a sense of how little I knew about Austin at that time, I actually looked out the window and said to Jeanette, "Hey look, honey, everyone's wearing the same color shirt as me!" Burnt orange. Everywhere. I had no idea.
I also had no idea just how close my high school friends Alice and Mignon lived. When I contacted them, they let me know that they were less than a half hour away and that they would be there soon to meet up with us.
We were able to have a good time with my old friends, which went a long way to allowing me to entertain the idea of moving nearly 2000 miles from Brooklyn, the city I'd called my home longer than any other place in the world. Yes, we had to sit through an annoying sales pitch with a cowboy who smelled of cigarettes, in a community we were about 30 years too young for, but we braved the storm and I connected the dots of the professional network I'd created during my 16 years in public education and met a few influential people in the Austin community who were able to open some doors for me on the work front. Less than a year after Jeanette's fateful sick day, we found ourselves living in Austin, Texas.
And here we are, almost 3 years later. Life is good, despite how much we miss certain people (and the ability to buy fresh sushi at all hours of the day or night), and we have one person to thank for it.
Thank you, Ponch. I knew there was a reason I had that poster of you in my bedroom in 9th grade. (And no, it wasn't for the reason everyone thought it was at the time...)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cybercrack: Is Our Techno-addiction Alleviating or Exacerbating Our Collective Alienation?

I recently attended the seventh birthday party of a friend's daughter at a place called The Main Event in Austin. I'd been there before; it's one of those over-stimulating kiddie havens, throbbing with the electronic complaints of hundreds of video games. Strobe-lit in day-glo colors, it's an epileptic seizure waiting to happen. As a parent of children in the 3 to 10 age range, it's inevitable that we will spend some time in one of these hells, at the behest of a friend, at least two or three times a year, in a good year.

At one point -- it was one of those kid-centered, cake-eating moments -- I happened to look up from checking email on my Blackberry when I was struck by something: Nearly every other adult in the room was doing what looked suspiciously like what I was doing at that moment. We lined the walls of the little party room, each of us in our own, separate cyber-world.

I found the moment disturbing. I'm often one who sings the praises of technology these days, so pleased am I to have reconnected with so many long-lost friends via Facebook, for example.

And I really do mean that, with not a speck of irony or sarcasm intended. How else would I be in regular contact with Gayle Saks, Miki Kasai, and Ruben Howard? Ruben Howard, for God's sake! I hadn't heard from that dude in years and years. Now I get to hear him rant about the economy on a regular basis! And I get to hear about my former students and how their lives are shaping up as adults. In a word, it's the coolest.

But there is a flipside to this. I am constantly, and I mean constantly, wondering if anyone has anything new to say. On Facebook, Twitter, wherever. If I've floated an idea, like this blogpost, in a cyberbasket down the River Cyber, like a little CyberMoses, I'm in an ongoing, sustained state of anticipation. And when I check my pages for like the umpteenth time, and I see that there have been exactly 0 responses, I am decidedly dejected, bordering on the Big D-word, dare I say it, DEPRESSED.

All of which leads me to the question: Does being able to see what some 600 "friends" are thinking and feeling at any given moment necessarily mean I am any less alone than I've ever been in the world? If you feel sad for me, feel free to "poke" me. But the question remains -- will all that poking make me feel more loved, or more alone?

In the words of Michael Scott, "That's what she said."

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Other Words...

My father knew a lot of things. He spoke a number of languages and was well-read. As a younger man, he wrote a novel that he never published. He spent the Sundays of his adult life tearing through the Times Magazine crossword puzzles in dizzying time. In pen! There was no "Google" or "Wikipedia" back in his time, so when he pulled quotations out from memory, it was true erudition. Me, I just go to one of those websites, cut and paste, slap a couple of quotation marks on either end, and I sound smart. He really was smart.

My brother Mike and I have discussed, at length, how much we both admired our dad's mind. I'd like to think I inherited at least some of his intelligence; and I know Mike has. There's something else I've inherited from Hanno, though, and I've never stopped to asked my brother if he has found this trait to have been handed down to him, as well. At a certain age, Mike and I caught on to the fact that it was very hard for our father ever to admit to not knowing anything. I don't know if it was because he thought saying he didn't know something would somehow lower our esteem for him; this wasn't possible, of course. As a boy, I viewed my father as a larger-than-life figure. A hero, in the epic sense of the word. I thought his mind was his super-power.

He probably sensed that I felt this way about him. I've developed this theory because I see the dynamic playing itself out with my own sons. I am their dictionary, their encyclopedia and their calculator. They come to me with question after question, and, like my father before me, I do my best to answer them. Although I'd like to think I'm better at admitting my ignorance than he was, I do fear letting the boys down and somehow losing the Olympian status I have at the moment, so I, too, am reluctant to say those three dreaded words.

When my brother and I reached a certain age, we could see the signs of when Hanno didn't know the answer to one of our questions. He would repeat it, stalling for time, searching the memory banks. Then he would begin to hypothesize on the problem. At this point, Mike or I would usually say to him, or to each other, "In other words...," which was shorthand for "In other words, you don't know."

Usually if it got to this point he was caught and would cop to maybe not knowing all there was to know on the topic. Sometimes, though, he would defend his ideas, to varying degrees of success. Because he was a thinker, his squirming could, at times, become a fascinating philosophical discussion. He was that smart.

When we were older, he would give in to self-effacing giggles, followed by a quick, joking, "Fuck you guys."

It's just a matter of time, in my case, before Diego and Jackson start asking Jeeves instead of asking Dad. And that's okay. I want them to know where to go for good information. For now, though, I'll admit to enjoying being their Phineas J. Whoopie. (For those of you who don't know, he was a cartoon character in the old "Underdog" series. "The Man with All the Answers.")

And you thought I wasn't well-read!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Boy Who Lived Everywhere

I have begun referring to Malik (not his real name, pictured at left) as "The Boy Who Lives Everywhere," because he is what his own mother refers to as a "House Hopper." Malik lives in the house next door and is a very sweet, very polite first-grader, who is just as likely to be in my house on a Saturday afternoon as he is to be in his own, or in the house across the street, or the one next to that. Jeanette and I don't mind having him around, and are prone to ask him to stay for dinner more often than not.

Basically, what he does (and who can blame him for this, really?) is travel house to house, looking for the next best video game to play. He's got plenty of his own, but anyone with kids knows that as far as they're concerned, other people's toys are much more fun to play with than their own. In his way, Malik is a genius.


Malik crossed the line recently, however, when, as he was eating dinner with us, he said, "I sure would like to stay here and have a sleepover with Jackson and Diego. I'm going to go ask my mom."


"Slow down, cowboy," I said. "You forgot something important there, pal."


"What?" he asked.


"Well, we didn't invite you to stay over."


Malik and I shared a moment of silence, just kind of staring at each other. I think he was trying to determine whether or not I was serious. To lighten things a bit, I repeated, smiling this time, "Being invited is important, buddy. Your mom would agree." He smiled his gap-toothed smile, and said, "Yes, sir," a little dejected. I gave him a high five, and we enjoyed the rest of his visit that evening.

This led me back to my own childhood, living in a community that was then about the same age as our present community is now. There was a group of us kids, probably about eight to ten, in all, who routinely roamed the streets and back woods of our area. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, so our house was filled, on a regular basis, with any number of our little crew. We rode bikes and skateboards, and were an every-day presence on Hartford Lane and environs.

The experience with Malik brought back to mind the time my brother Mike was hanging around at his friend Jonathan's house one Saturday. I was in our kitchen at home, keeping my mother company as she prepared dinner, when the phone rang. I wasn't paying attention to the call, but suddenly my mother was beside herself with laughter. She couldn't speak, she was laughing so much. When she finally got it out, my father and I were laughing, too.

Apparently, it was Jonathan on the other end of the line. Six-year-old Jonathan Heller had taken it upon himself to pick up the phone and dial our number. When my mother answered, he very politely said, "Hello, Mrs. Fuchs. This is Jonathan. Don't you think it's about time Michael headed home for dinner?" She'd then done everything she could to contain herself as she sternly directed Michael to come right home, before breaking up completely.

My brother had clearly overstayed his welcome, and poor Jonathan felt his only recourse was to go to the ultimate authority -- my mother. We were -- all of us -- the Kids Who Lived Everywhere back then. As I think on it now, forty years after the fact, it feels like nostalgia to me. But then I look at Malik and am pleased that he is carrying on in our tradition. Sure, we overstayed our welcome from time to time, or invited ourselves over inappropriately. But we did it because we were reaching out to those who lived near us, and isn't that what being a "community" is all about?




Friday, January 21, 2011

Falling Shoes


I don't often think about 9/11. It's not that I've blocked it out, or anything as dramatic as that. It's been nearly ten years, and in the spirit of survival and not giving in, I have moved on. It's my strong belief that the collective souls of those thousands of innocents whose lives were so recklessly taken on that day would not wish us to dwell on the devastation, but, rather they'd want us to forge ahead and continue on, and in the process, we avenge their deaths by living our lives.
Occasionally, however, I do remember. I remember the way my student, Sean Lawrence, came into my classroom on the third floor of Satellite Academy on West 30th Street and said in a curious monotone, "I'm not sure, but I think I just saw a plane crash into the World Trade Center." He had caught a glimpse of that first impact, just as he was crossing Sixth Avenue, heading to school.
I recall the silence of a New York City with no cars driving past, and no planes flying overhead. It was eerie, and we, the inhabitants making our way to our homes that day, walked past each other like shadows, strangely making eye contact (not our usual way), as if to wordlessly reassure one another.
I remember the way we all shifted to the north-facing windows of the F-train, as we emerged in Brooklyn, and seeing, for the first time, the giant plume of smoke that would linger and stink for days. A teenage boy saying, "Oh my God, it's true. It's really true."
Weeks later, as we healed, I was in a bar with some friends, who introduced me to a woman I'd never met. "I was there," she said. I didn't have to ask her where. Or when. I just knew by the look in her eyes.
"There's one thing I'll never forget," she said. "The shoes."
"Shoes?"
"They just kept falling. Shoes. Women's shoes, men's boots, children's sneakers. They were raining down from the burning building."
She told me she'd heard from a scientist friend that the physics behind the falling shoes was similar to when a pedestrian is hit by a speeding car and one sees a pair of shoes standing in the exact spot where the victim once stood. Imagine that impact, times a hundred. Times a thousand.
The woman passed this image on to me, and although I'm thankful for not having been there that day, it's this second-hand image that occasionally wakes me up at night, as I consider what it must have been like to have been in those shoes on that sunny fall morning nearly ten years ago. There are other, more violent images I've seen associated with 9/11; the footage of people choosing to jump from 100 stories, rather than be burned to death, a photograph taken by my brother-in-law, one of the first responders, of something that had once been a human being -- but it's these falling shoes that I'll never forget and that will forever remind me of horrific tragedy and a loss that changed our world forever.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In The Principal's Office


At this stage of my career, I don't think I could count the number of principal's offices I've been in. I've strategized with them, looked over grants, discussed action plans, listened to them complain and celebrate and vent and dream. I've served them as a teacher, grant manager, assistant principal, program officer, director and school improvement facilitator. I've worked with confident leaders who have years of experience, and first-year administrators who look like deer caught in headlights.

I've probably logged as many hours sitting across tables and desks from principals, since I left the classroom in 2004, as I have in any given cubicle I've occupied during that time.

Yet, it's funny: Each and every time I sit and wait for a principal (and I ALWAYS sit and wait, because the nature of a principal's life is that meetings run long), there comes a moment when I get this feeling that can be described in only one way -- I feel like I'm in trouble.

You'd think that having occupied The Big Chair myself, I'd be able to shrug off this sensation after a while, but no. It's there with me every time. The other day, at Fred Florence Middle School, I nearly turned to the boy sitting next to me, who was holding an ice pack to a swollen cheek, to ask, "What're you in for?" Instead, I summoned up my best grown-up voice and said, "Are you all right, young man?" "Yes, sir," he replied politely, lying, I'm sure. One doesn't sit in the principal's waiting area with an ice pack on ones face if one is "all right."

He's in trouble. A woman in a nurse's uniform appears from a door I hadn't noticed and the boy disappears behind it with her. Eventually, the principal is done with her previous meeting and summons me to "come on in." As it turns out, I'm not in trouble. In fact, she's glad I'm there, as they usually are, because I am someone who is there to partner with them, clear up questions they may have, and generally make their lives easier. My reticence gives way to an enjoyment of what I'm doing. I derive professional satisfaction knowing that I've been of assistance to the head of the school, the person ultimately responsible for improving the lives of every child in that building.

I wish I could say I was in trouble a lot as a kid myself, that these fears represented some kind of "flashback" to my days of youthful rebellion. It would make a better story if I could. The closest I ever came to anything like that was when Coach Kearney, our Dean of Discipline at Harrison High, pulled me over in the hall one day and asked, "Danny, how's Mr. Greco's class?" I cringed and didn't answer. "You've missed a few of his classes lately." "Yeah, a couple," I agreed. "A couple? Danny, you haven't been to Mr. Greco's class in three weeks."

I explained to Mr. Kearney that my truancy was due to a technicality ("I lived in Michigan in tenth grade and missed Global Studies, and now they're making me take it, and I'm in a class full of my little brother's friends, and c'mon, Coach.").

"I really should send you down to Mr. Hunter's office," he paused for effect, looking up and down the hallway, at what, I wasn't sure. "But you're a good kid, Danny. If I talk to Joe Greco and tell him you'll make it to his class and make up the work you've missed, are you gonna make me a liar?" "No, sir," I said in the meek voice I thought he wanted to hear. "Cause I'll come after you if you do," he smiled. "Yes, sir."

And I got away with 15 cuts. Just by being a Good Kid. Maybe I've stumbled upon the reason for my anxiety whenever I sit in the main office waiting room. Would I feel less culpable if Coach Kearney had sent me to the assistant principal's office? It could very well be.

We'll never know....

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"For Your Edification"

(A poem inspired by Kami Lewis Levin)

I prefer to be called
"knickers;"
though you
insist on
using that more
American
term -- "panties."

Your moist
farts
do nothing
to
quench
the thirst of my
parched
soul.

Oh, and by the way,
contrary to
what
you think --
your aureolas,
they're not
"all that."
In fact, they
suck.

Before anyone goes getting any crazy ideas, this poem was written in response to a tweet of Kami's in which she listed seven of her least favorite words of all time. I told her I wanted to write a poem incorporating all the words called "For Kami," and she said "PLEASE write that poem."

So I did.

Little did I know it would be from the point of view of a pair of women's underwear...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remembering "Opa"



My memories of Dr. Bill Fuchs are vague and fading fast. My father's father was a dapper man in the old style. When I remember him, he's nearly always wearing a suit. Sometimes, he's relaxing at home in a cardigan sweater over a button down shirt, slacks and loafers.



I do recall that he smoked cigars and to this day, as objectionable as I find them, there's a comforting aspect to their odor, as well, thanks to Opa. That's what my siblings, cousins and I called him. German for "Grandpa." Our grandmother, his wife Maryanne, was Oma.



Opa played tennis, and there are good stories from his playing days, like the one my father wrote up and had published in "Tennis" Magazine, called "Portugal vs. the World." The story is both comical and sad, and tells of my grandfather's entry into a European tennis tournament during World War II. He was a resident of Lisbon at the time, and wished to play representing Portugal, instead of Germany, where he was born, raised, and from which he ultimately fled. As the tale goes, the only flag they could find at the request of the aging tennis player was enormous, two times the size of any of the other flags of the other countries being represented during the tournament. Thus the title.



I found the above photo of Opa quite by accident. I actually did a Google Images search of my father's name, and this popped up. It's from a genealogy site. ("The Family History of the Calzaretta, Krieger, Michaels and Rafael Families") I love it, and am considering using it as my profile picture for a while, just to get him back into the world, even briefly.



There may be a few of you out there who will remember this: (I sort of downplayed it at the time) but I did get to honor Dr. Fuchs in a rather striking way, when I wore his formal tuxedo to my senior prom, in May of 1981. (You get a glimpse of it above -- note the felt top hat I'm holding against my left leg. It had his name, "Dr. B. Fuchs," embroidered inside.) Unfortunately, I was hot and uncomfortable in the wool tails, and a little stressed about having to drive my girlfriend's father's Buick Electra, 225 -- a BOAT of an automobile that I almost wrecked on our first turn out of her neighborhood -- but I did look good. And it was an honor to have my grandfather "with me." (He had died less than two years before this picture was taken, so that loss was still fresh for me.)



Our culture doesn't honor our ancestors the way others do. I've always been the keeper of memories in my family, like my uncle Geoffrey Fuchs before me, and I'll admit to slipping a bit as of late. My hope is that these blogs will re-kindle that flame for me.

I'd say they already have.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dr. Lincoln, I mean Washington, I mean King


My boys are at that stage in their education when they're starting to get a lot of facts thrown at them, especially Diego, now in the second grade. They know, for instance, about a president named George Washington. Diego has also learned some things about Abraham Lincoln. And I've seen little readings about Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today.

The problem is, however, that they're receiving all these facts and are either not being allowed to process them fully, or their brains are not yet at a point of being able to do so.

It leads to some pretty interesting conversations, which remind me of collages of historical figures, glued together in an attempt to make meaning of the interesting stuff they've been learning.

For example, the other day, as I drove them to school, I wanted to see what they knew about Dr. King, since they would be having a day off to celebrate his birth.

"So guys," I said, peering into the rear view mirror, "what can you tell me about Martin Luther King?"

The second grader raised his hand politely, but before I could "call on him," the Kindergartner yelled out, "Maulinlooferking was a very nice man who died a long time ago!"

"Jack-SIN!" Diego whined.

"Okay, Jackson, that was good, but Diego raised his hand."

"And maulinlooferking was the boss of everything," Jackson continued.

"STOP!!" Diego yelled with such urgency that you'd think Jackson was somehow emptying his bank account, bleeding him dry.

Fearing the dreaded "Boy Fight," I informed Jackson that it was Diego's turn to share.

"Martin Luther King freed the slaves," the older boy announced.

"I think you might be thinking of someone else," I said.

"He's on pennies."

"That's Abraham Lincoln."

"And he made the world safe after the Revolutionary War."

I do my best to encapsulate the Civil Rights movement, talking about segregation, and even "personalizing" it for them, suggesting that, had Dr. King never been born, the two of them might never have been born either.

"Why, Daddy?"

I explained that as people of two different racial backgrounds, their mother and I might never have been allowed to marry. There was a pause, and then I heard them both laugh. It wasn't derisive or silly; in fact their laughter made me happy. The laugh suggested that they had thought about what I'd said, looked at each other, and then silently concluded that the notion of a world where their parents were not together was utterly ridiculous.

At that point, they moved on to the next topic of conversation, which was, if I'm not mistaken, whether or not Spider-man could beat up Batman.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mommy Needs a "Girl Fix"

When my good friend, educator Jason Marrero, came to visit us from New York last September, he had his six year old daughter, Samara, in tow. We had a great time all around; Jason and I got to catch up, and the kids enjoyed each other. We dropped Samara off with the kids for gymnastics one evening, and Jason and I got to enjoy an authentic Texas high school football game. And the six of us had a good hike on the trails along Lady Bird Lake. A good time was had by all.

Samara did a great job being away from her mom for the first time. She was generally upbeat and positive. The two talked on the phone daily. It was a treat for me to see my friend in his fatherly role. He handled it pretty well, until the issue of Samara's hair came up.

"Oh God," he said, preparing himself for the worst. He took Samara into the bathroom and the screaming ensued.

On the second morning, as Samara's anxiety began mounting, Jason explained to us that the screaming was a daily ritual. She didn't care for having her hair brushed, especially not by Daddy. "But if Lisa sees the pictures we take and Sam's hair isn't combed, I'll be in a world of shit."

"I remember that," Jeanette said, smiling at Samara. "No fun, right?"

Samara frowned and shook her head.

"Would you like me to try?" she asked. Sammy nodded, still pouting. Gently squeezing clumps of hair, Jeanette was careful to brush out the tangles at the ends of each handful, before taking on longer bits. Before too long, the brush was making its way easily down Sammy's scalp in smooth, even strokes. Not only was Samara's anxious expression gone, but it was replaced by a beatific, far-away smile. This cemented my wife's bond with my friend's daughter. Each night, Sammy demanded a special hug from Jeanette, and she gave it happily.

I realized, looking at my wife's own expression as she worked on the little girl's hair, that she too wore a contented smile. Poor Jeanette is surrounded constantly by male energy. Having this young girl in our home for a few days, needing her hair combed, was a treat for her. The realization made me think immediately of my own mother, who was also in charge of two boys. When I started dating my high school girlfriend, Maria, I would take her home on occasion, in the hopes that we could sneak past my mother and do some making out up in my room. Unfortunately for me, my mother and Maria hit it off and became fast friends, so that every time I brought her home, my mother would grab her away from me, and tell me to "go watch baseball with your brother," or something to that effect. (Maria told me, years later, that these meetings were important in her development as a young woman. My mother became a kind of mentor figure to her, and I'm happy to know this, painful though it was for me at the time.)

It will be interesting to see whether Jeanette responds to my sons' future girlfriends in this way. Like Maria, Samara Marrero is a special person, and that quality will have something to do with it, I'm sure. But it can't be easy for a woman to be in the exclusive company of males. Getting a "girl fix" now and then must be extremely refreshing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rooting for Ray Lewis and All That It Means



If you're looking for an opinion piece trashing Ray Lewis, this isn't it. Yes, I've chosen familiar courtroom jumpsuit shots of both Lewis and another football star I've been thinking about of late, but be patient: You may be disappointed if you're ready to cheer, or vice versa.
Amid the Facebook chatter recently, one of my friends devoted her status update to her favorite remaining team in the NFL playoffs, stating, simply, "Ravens!!!!!" There were a vast variety responses, from both sides, but there was one in particular that started me thinking (and led me down the path back to 1994, and watching that crazy, slow-speed chase while the Knicks played in the NBA playoffs). The post read, "Let's see if the murderer can get himself another Super Bowl ring," or something to that effect.
I found myself remembering October 3, 1995, the day the long, drawn-out, sometimes dramatic ("If it doesn't fit you must acquit,") sometimes mundane ("Yes, I'm sure it was between 9 and 10 that I heard the dog barking, because I was watching 'L.A. Law,' which comes on at 9...") murder trial of O.J. Simpson finally came to a close. A large chunk of our small high school on Chambers Street had gathered around the TV monitors we kept on rolling carts with VCRs in the back of our shabby computer room. I'll never forget the response: Our predominantly white teaching staff let out a collective sound of disbelief, like a muddled "what," almost in unison. The students, and our one African-American teacher, cheered. They looked elated.
I think my reaction fell somewhere in between. The preponderance of evidence appeared to suggest that O.J. was guilty of brutally murdering his wife and her friend. But the justice system mandates a jury can only find you guilty if the evidence proves your guilt "beyond a shadow of a doubt." I reasoned that the defense had done their job by establishing doubt, and that the jury had done what the judge had instructed them to do. Yes, this was a tragedy, but like it or not, the man was not guilty.
I looked around the room and considered the emotions. For the white teachers, I wondered whether in Nicole Brown, they saw a sister, or a cousin, or a bit of themselves? And I imagined the relief and elation, as the rest of the viewers in the room, the black and Latino students and their one black teacher, thought, "Oh thank God. We are spared another of our men being subjected to the unending 'perp walks' that seem at times to be our collective pennance for some wrong we're not aware of ever having committed."
Of course, the details of Ray Lewis's case are much less dramatic. There's the Missing White Suit, and not much else. (Although some point to Lewis paying out a large settlement to one of the victim's children as an admission of guilt somehow.) Again, he was found not guilty.
I root for him because he is so exciting to watch on the football field. However, like many other professional athletes these days, Ray Lewis's Hero Status is in serious question.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Boy And His Dog-Lust

I have a confession to make: My resolve to deny my son Jackson his request for a dog is beginning to flag. I was proud of myself when we got through Christmas without giving in to the incessant questioning: "Are y'all gonna get me a dog?" "Is Santa bringing me a dog?" "How come Brady has a dog?" "Did you have a dog when you were five?" "How come you had a dog, and I can't have a dog."


I say I'm proud because there were a number of you betting on the fact that Jeanette and I would cave in, and we didn't. I guess you figured that the kid is so darned cute he's bound to get to us eventually. My wife and I have stayed on the same script: "When a family decides to have a dog, everyone has to be ready, and we're not all ready just yet."


And he bought that for a while, but I think he feels my resolve starting to crumble. He tries to get me to participate in straw polls when I give him this answer now, responding with, "Well, Daddy, are you one of the people who is ready, or not ready." Unconvincingly I explain that I'm one of the not-readys.


In addition to the strategy I mentioned above, (staying "on-message" with Jeanette) I have tried a couple of other tactics to respond to Jackson's manipulation. He and I sat at the computer and wrote a little story together about a boy named Jackson and his dog named Blinky (or something like that). We even found a picture of Blinky from Google images. (He's a chihuahua.) Jackson liked it so much, we printed it out and stuck it on his bedroom door. We've also visited a couple of dogs. We stopped in on our neighbors, an elderly couple, who let Jackson feed their chihuahua, Pepper.

I think it was this dog-visiting strategy that led to the wane in my resolve. Last weekend I took the boys up to Round Rock to visit my old high school buddy, Mignon Young, and to meet their new puppy, Tuffy. I took a few pictures with my Blackberry, not expecting much. The photo quality is okay, but no great shakes.

Unfortunately, God can sometimes be a cruel trickster, because as I was looking through those shots, I came across the one I've included above. The expression on my son's face is so full of love and wonder and joy and DAMMIT! I can hear Jeanette already. "Stay the course, Dan. Stay the course."

I know, I know, but come on. I mean, look at that face. I'm slipping. I don't want to pick up dog poop.

But I'm slipping.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Loneliness of the Staff Developer

It's been a great conference. The walls are covered with inspired ideas and plans with which to carry them out. We have thought with the end in mind. We have stormed and normed and begun to form. My participants have shared their work with each other and talked about what they'll do next. I thank them, and then ask if they have any final thoughts, questions or comments. They say no, and thank me back, perhaps with a smattering of polite applause thrown in there, and begin to mingle their way to the door.
Then comes that inevitable moment when you're standing there, smiling, and you realize that your subjects are done with you. Done. Already they have started moving on with their lives. They begin making calls and texting. Slowly, you move away from them, back into your staff development space, and you look at the detritus of your profession -- post-it notes, markers of every color and fruity scent, chart paper, laptops connected to LCD projectors, and jump drives you're starting to get confused. Your "Thank You" or "Venture Forth" slide blinks brightly at you, and only you, like an insincere actor's smile. Suddenly, in the silent, empty room, it seems sadly comical, so you turn it off and listen to the sound of the projector cooling down. You begin to critique yourself: Was I too directive? Did I encourage enough participation? Why don't I know everyone's name yet? It's not that big of a group.
When I deliver staff development, I always try to remember what worked for me as a participant: Don't talk at me the whole time. Ask me my opinion. I have things to say, and so do all these other interesting people in the room, who are struggling with all the same things as me. Ask their opinions. Get us talking to each other. My sense is that I've done this for the group these past two days.
Nowadays, when I go to conferences or trainings as a participant, I always make it a point to go up to the presenter at the end and thank them, during that weird time when we make that switch to our real lives and exit the bubble of "what-could-be," because I know what an odd and lonely feeling they have at that moment.
I'm not saying it isn't sometimes a relief to be done; it often is. Sometimes very much so. However, there's this odd shift that occurs, when the stuff you've been discussing for the past however long goes from being the center of the group's universe to being relegated to the stockpile of "things-outside-the-day-to-day" I don't like being in that realm. It's something like living in limbo for me.

Today, as everything winds to a close, and I gather up my materials, a young lady from a school near Houston makes it a point to poke her head in the door, before checking out of the hotel and heading home.

"Listen, Dan, I just wanted to make sure to find you to thank you for a great conference," she smiles, waves and is gone.

"Thank you," I say after her, and wonder if I've made a difference in the life of that young teacher and, consequently, in the lives of her students.

Of course, I have to believe I have. I let her thanks echo in my head as I shake off that strange loneliness and gather up my things, before finding my fellow staff developers and asking that age-old question that educators have been asking since the Dawn of Time: "Who's buying?"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How My Mother Got Me to Stop Buying Dirty Magazines


My mother was creative. She was an artist who did things her own way and didn't care much for the predictable. That's why her response to finding a Penthouse magazine under my mattress was so darn funny. (Such a clever place to hide porn, I know. No one would ever think to look there, right? Especially not the woman who cleans the house.)


I should mention that getting one's hands on pornography back in the mid-1970's was not as easy as it is today. Now they send it to your home, and if you're sneaky enough, you can actually look at it for free. In those days, you had to find a friend with an older brother who was willing to go into the store and buy it for you. Then the friend came into school with a plain, Manila clasp envelope. You handed him a five and hurried to your locker, where you stashed the mag. Your palms were sweating and your breath was short. There was a tickle somewhere south of the border, knowing that after school you would lock yourself in a bathroom and peruse a whole new group of nymphs.


So, I must have come up to my room one day, ready to do some serious nymph perusal, when I pulled this particular copy of Penthouse out from under the mattress. Saving the best for last, I started with the Forum letters, all of which start with the classic first line, "I'm just a regular guy from a small town, and I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me." Well whatever outrageous event this man found himself in must have had the desired effect, because I was ready for the nymphs.


On this occasion, as I turned to the first featured "Pet," I saw something so unexpected, so strange, and just generally unreal that I had to stop and shake my head. She had something black covering over her breasts and "naughty bits," as they say in England. "Oh, no," I said aloud. "Oh no, oh no, oh no."


I repeated this mantra as I turned the pages and saw that my mother had duct taped every naughty bit she found. She wasn't sexist, because in the "couples" spread, the guy had his junk taped over, too.


It had what I'm sure was the desired effect: I was mortified, embarrassed and I never bought porn again. (That's probably not entirely true. But I certainly didn't bring it in my mother' s home if I did.) She never mentioned it, and neither did I when we saw each other that night.


Years later I reminded her of this event. She struggled to recall it, but laughed at the notion. I never questioned my brother or father. Duct tape? Come on; that was the artist. Marching to her own drummer.


I was going to say I'm going to use that tactic with my kids, if and when, but then I thought of something:


How do you put duct tape on a computer screen?


God, I'm in so much trouble.....

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our Children Are Watching Us: Modeling Partnership for Kids

The following is the transcript of a speech I began writing, in case I was called upon to open up our 2-day conference that starts tomorrow for the 48 schools we serve on the Investment Capital Fund (ICF) grant. Community Action Teams of 5 people from each school -- principal, teacher, parent, business leader, and non-profit partner -- will be coming together to brainstorm and work on their Action Plans. Thankfully, we found a wonderful keynote, Dr. Willie Kimmons, so I never finished the speech. I thought I'd go ahead and post this anyway, since I'm sure many of you share the sentiment:

One of the most exciting aspects of this work for me is the possibilities it presents us to MODEL COOPERATIVE LEARNING for our kids. When children see, or are aware of, a group that looks like yours – when a kid sees their parent, who is sitting next to their teacher, who is sitting next to their principal, who is sitting next to their pastor – all with that young man or woman’s personal success as their common goal, that image has power in their minds. And this empowers us, when we put that child into a group to work on a project, or a problem, or a science lab, and we tell them, “Use the minds you have around this table to really struggle with this. Bat it around. Turn it over. Take it apart and put it back together. AS A GROUP.” Not only will they hear in your voice the fact that you yourself are engaged in a similar process, but you, as the adult in this situation will have a newfound sympathy, as you realize that what this child is telling you is true: “Working in groups is HARD!”

It is sometimes hard, but it is also immensely satisfying. Nothing goes farther to bring about a desired change than good, trusting, courageous partnership. It’s true in all aspects of life – from the classroom to the athletic arena, to families and marriages. I’ve been lucky enough to have played all of the roles that each of you now find yourself playing – teacher, principal, parent, community-based representative, and I’ve seen the work pay great dividends in the lives of young people who now call themselves my “friends.” (on Facebook, at least.) They tell me story after story about how grateful they are for the help and caring I, along with my partners, provided for them at a time in their life that they now realize they may not have survived otherwise.

Among the most classic "conversation-enders" in public education is “It’s not about you, it’s ABOUT THE KIDS.” But I’m going to amend that: “It’s not about you, it’s about you AND THE KIDS.” Don’t forget that they’re the other partner in this work. What you do matters to them. They may not say it now, but they will. That’s why I’d ask you to continue to keep a particular child in mind as you do this work, and ask yourself how all this partnership might serve to change the life of that one person.

On behalf of the ICF team at TEA and Region XIII, we hope you enjoy your time here with us.

Thank you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pride (in the Name of . . . "Fuchs"??)

As you might imagine, mine was not the easiest name to grow up with. I attribute any sense of humor I may lay claim to today to having grown up American with a name one letter away from the most multi-purpose curse word in the English lexicon. Where would Martin Scorcese, David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino be without it?

Some people with my last name probably grow up fighting all the time; that was never my style. My parents didn't encourage it. On the rare occasion that I would come home upset over some teasing I'd taken as a result of our shared last name, they would tell me to simply ignore it. And I did pretty well at that. But that didn't always work, so it was necessary to become skilled at sarcasm. Usually people didn't just come out and "call me" the F-word. For some reason, most would say, "Hey, did anyone ever tell you your last name looks like 'Fucks'?"

Playing to the crowd that was always there (because why else would anyone ask such a question, unless it was to get a reaction from the group), I would do a puzzled double-take and look up, as if picturing the two words in my head, side by side, for the first time. Then, in a moment of inspired acting, I would see it! "No, why? What -- wait a minute! You're right! Whoa, that is weird! You know, I think you may be the VERY FIRST PERSON to ever point that out to me. Thank you! Thank you for making me aware of that!" By the time I was done with this snide little monologue, I had the crowd laughing with me and at my harasser, so that the aggressor slunk away, red-faced, looking for less nimble victims of their unoriginal bullying.

I don't know whether it was because they got bored of such an unsatisfying mark, or because at a certain age "Dan Fucks" became a compliment rather than an insult, but eventually it stopped, and the next time I ever remember being concerned about it was when I started teaching in a public high school as a young man in my late twenties. I pictured the moment I wrote my name on the board for the first time and the snickering it would incite. Ironically, I ended up working in a school where the students called their teachers by their first names, and the students who wanted to take special ownership over me called me "Mr. Fuchs," since "Dan" was what all those other kids called me. Never once during my 15-year teaching career was my name defaced or ridiculed.

At least not that I'm aware of...

This may be a good time to explain the name's origins: The word Fuchs is German for "fox." My father's family owned a lumber company in Karlsruhe, Germany that was -- like many businesses owned by Jews at the time -- "nationalized" by the Nazi party. That's why my branch of the Fuchs family made its way over here to America.

As an adult, I now understand that I carry not only the name, but the struggles of my ancestors with it. I have developed such pride in my name that I decided, at age 40, to have a running fox tattooed onto my left bicep. My two boys have yet to be introduced to "the 'F' word" (though I've let it slip in their presence once or twice), and I'm sure that moment will arrive when they come sulking home after some hurtful comment from a classmate. They may even spend some time resenting me for giving them such a pain-in-the-ass name. I'll do my best to provide them with strategies to deal with the bullies and the jerks, and I'll never let them forget those brave souls who wore the name so proudly before they had their turn to do so.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bravery, and Humor, in the Face of "Disability"

When my mother was a child, on the tail end of the Great Depression, she came down with a bout of Scarlet Fever. It's called Scarlet Fever because it presents as a bright red rash; it's a form of Strep, a viral infection that, today, is easily treated with antibiotics. I had it as a boy and can barely remember the experience. Back in the day, however, it could cause all kinds of problems, including pneumonia and death. Anyone familiar with "Little House on the Prairie" remembers that Laura's older sister, Mary, had her eyesight knocked out by Scarlet Fever.

In my mother's case, Scarlet Fever took away a great deal of her ability to hear. She had numerous ear operations throughout her life, just to keep from losing her remaining hearing. Her hearing aid was a clunky contraption; I can recall turning it over in my hands before she woke up one morning, puzzling over it -- a metal box containing batteries that she hooked to her brassiere, with a long wire that led to a headset she did her best to hide under her hair. A large, bulbous amplifier rested above her left ear.

All this aside, it's funny; when I think of her, I never think of her as someone with a "disability," per se. In retrospect, I can appreciate that she excelled in a number of areas in her life, (first in her family to graduate college, had a successful career as an commercial artist and art director, maintained a marriage and household and brought up two children) all the while having to compensate for an ability most people take for granted. When pressed, I do remember the way her lips would move along with my teacher's on parent-teacher night; I now realize that she was, of course, reading lips. No one taught her the skill. This was something she learned out of necessity.

At times my mother used her deafness to her advantage. If she was trying to read a book, and my brother and I were chasing each other around the house, determined to kill one another, and screaming our vows to do so, all she needed to do was unclip her battery pack from her bra, flip a switch, and she would sit, smiling, in blissful peace, as my father was left to sort things out with us.

There were other times, too, where my mother's hearing loss provided us with an incredible source of humor. One day, when I was about twelve and my younger brother Mike was about ten, we were shopping in our local department store, Masters in Elmsford, New York. My brother and I stopped and considered a sign that was prominently posted on the sales floor. "Danny, what does that word mean?" Mike asked. "I don't know," I answered.

The sign read "Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted," and we knew all the words but this last one. Being as she was smarter than most, and read lots and lots of books, we decided to ask our mother. "Mom," Mike asked, "what does 'prosecute' mean?"

Suddenly my mother became flustered. Her face turned red and she pulled us both aside, as if trying to hide us from the other shoppers. "Oh, Michael," she whispered, "a prostitute is someone who sells their body for money."

Mike and I looked at each other for a moment. Then Mike said, "I know what a prostitute is! I want to know what prosecute means!"

Then she began to laugh. And laugh. She laughed so much that people looked at her. At us, because the two of us started to laugh. And the story became family lore, a story we told at countless Thanksgiving tables for years to come.

A few years later, Mike borrowed a water pipe from a friend. For some reason, he thought that a good place to hide it would be on the floor, behind the toilet bowl in the bathroom off of the bedroom he and I shared in our house in Purchase. I don't know who he thought kept the bathroom clean, but she inevitably found the thing and confronted my brother with it. "Do you mind telling me what this is?" she asked, holding it out to him. Completely busted, my brother decided to come clean. "I'm sorry, Mom. It's a bong." "A BOMB?" she said, putting it down where she'd found it. "Are you crazy? What are you thinking bringing a bomb into this house!"

Without missing a beat, Mike explained that it wasn't a very powerful bomb at all and that he would remove it from the house immediately.

Years later Mike and I told her that story, and we had a good laugh. Sadly, my mother passed away way too young, at age 57, when Mike and I were in our twenties. It's only now that I can appreciate her bravery in the face of her deafness, and realize how much I miss her bravery. And, God knows, I miss her laughter, too.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cava de San Miguel, 8: The Most Cojonudo Place I've Ever Lived


The closest I ever came (or have come as of now, I should say) to living in a commune was when I lived in the large 6th floor apartment at Cava de San Miguel, number 8. It came at the tail end of my time living in that city, from 1989 to 1990. Still in a haze after the death of my mother, I had decided to return to see the Madrid Experiment to its conclusion, whatever that might prove to be. I was not the same person who had left a few months earlier, to see my mother through the process of illness and death. The weight of my loss changed the way I walked, the way I talked -- my very countenance was different.

One day our good friend, Amador Lopez, came running into the apartment of another friend who was kind enough to let me crash until I could find a place. (Susan and I had found a rather sterile furnished apartment in a stodgy part of town just before I'd gotten the call that my mother had cancer. The landlord took a hard line against our proposal to break the lease at first. He then looked me in the eyes, as if checking for signs that I had created this horrible lie. His face softened, and he wished us luck. I still wonder what he saw in my eyes.) Amador was out of breath, which was not unusual; he was someone with boundless energy, often forgoing elevators for flights of stairs. Finally, after some effort, he was able to tell us about "un piso cojonudo que se alquila" -- an amazing flat for rent -- in the ancient part of the city, just across from the Plaza Mayor, and, perhaps more importantly, half a block away from our favorite bar, La Escondida.

The three of us secured the apartment, and although it needed massive amounts of work, it was an incredible find. Five bedrooms, one bathroom, and a view of the clay-tiled rooftops of the zona antigua de Madrid. I don't remember the price, but it was affordable. After snatching up the two back bedrooms that flanked the ornate "salon" for ourselves, we filled the rest of the flat with an international cast of characters -- a classmate of Amador's from the Universidad Autonoma named Mayte was our first, and most constant, roommate. Mayte was shy and studious but with a sly sense of humor. I liked her because she was sweet and patient with my sometimes shaky Spanish and because she laughed at all my jokes.

I think Kathy Hart, now married to Amador and mother of two gorgeous children, was a tenant there for a while, before moving in with Kata, one of a crew of Germans we befriended at the time, who were themselves often found at Cava de San Miguel. Kathy and I formed a strong bond around writing and reading, and through her I met Max Terry, who rented a room in the apartment, as well. Max was a writer, and I enjoyed staying up late and drinking with him, talking about books, sharing our writing, and smoking too many cigarettes. Susan's good friend, Anna Cassina -- a filmmaker from Milan, Italy -- also lived with us for a time. What I remember most about Anna is her infectious laugh. It made you want to make her laugh, and Susan certainly did that. The two of them spent a lot of time laughing. A LOT. There was also a somewhat crazy redhead from Denmark who lived there named Roset. Roset wasn't unpleasant, but she often seemed to be off in her own world. Kind of "ethereal" I guess you'd say.

My tenure at Cava de San Miguel was short, as I soon came to see my choice of returning to Madrid to have been in error. My family needed me, and the relationship with Susan came to a close. I stayed there until the summer of 1990, spent that summer traveling and making mischief on my own, before returning to life in the States that fall. The way memory works, I'm sure I'd be surprised to know exactly how brief my time in that apartment was. In my mind, it feels like I lived an entire lifetime there. Eventually we were all replaced, one by one, by other tenants, as we all went on to the rest of our lives, away from that incredible commune. In retrospect, I did some important healing in that flat, and got enough strength to go back to my country and begin my adult life there.
I'm happy to say that I am still in contact (thanks to the miracle of the "Interweb") with most of the people mentioned above, and I even got to show my wife and two children the building last February (see photo, above). Who knows? Maybe there will be a Cava de San Miguel reunion some time in the future. I'd certainly do my best to make it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

"Wow, Texas!"

I get this a lot. From both sides. My friends in the Northeast, some of whom I haven't "seen" in years (excluding the photos they choose to share with their Facebook world) write it in their e-mails and photo comments. "What's that like?" Images of John Wayne, oil wells and cattle probably fill their heads. I wonder if they picture me strolling in blue jeans and pointy-toed boots underneath big skies. The other "side" I referred to is made up of the people I meet here who, when they hear I moved my little family all the way from New York say things like, "You don't have an accent." "I will if you get me mad enough," has become my stock answer. With a smile, of course.

We've been here for about two and a half years now, and the most common question both Jeanette and I get is "How do you like it in Texas?" Often there's an inflection or a squint of the eye that suggests we wouldn't, being New Yorkers. I think this is because of all the preconceived notions both places have bundled up with them. After all, if you think about Hollywood, this country's leading producer of preconceptions, I'll bet there are more films set in Texas and New York City than anywhere else, with the possible exception of California.

Rather than unravel all of THAT, the short answer I tend to give is something like, "Great. We love it here." And we do. But just let me clarify something: Austin is a little different than the Texas you see in the movies. There is no desert here, and the only tumbleweeds I see are the ones in Lubbock, where the rental car people warn you about them because they can leave your car worse off than them if you hit them at speeds.

Austin is an erudite, cosmopolitan, laid-back and beautiful city of about 800,000 inhabitants. That "metropolitan area" population bloats to almost 2 million once you include the neighboring suburbs. It's a university town, so you're just as likely to meet people from somewhere else as you are to meet a "native" Texan. The cliche is that UT students love Austin so much that they never leave, so that there's a glut of waiters and bartenders with advanced degrees from the University of Texas.

We live in Manor, (pronounced "Mainer") a town just east of the city. (Don't ask me why it's pronounced that way. Why do New Yorkers pronounce Houston Street "HOW-stin"?) It's small, and you do sometimes see fellers with cowboy hats and big belt buckles lazing around in front of the Manor Hotel on the four-storefront strip that makes up "downtown" Manor. They wave to you as you pass. There's a lot of waving. Which I like.

I won't speak for Jeanette, but I do remember her coming home from work one day early on in our time here, throwing down her car keys and saying, "Why can't I just go into a store, get what I need, and get the hell out, without having to hear someone's life story." I know, it sounds like a typical New-Yorker response, and it is. But to be fair, these days I have to hurry Jeanette along, because she gets into long, meandering small-talk with people everywhere we go now. She's given in. That one wasn't so new to me, because the maternal side of my tree is pure South. My mom graduated from Texas Women's University in Denton.

The other things that get under her skin are "y'all" and football. She has given up trying to correct our boys on the former; Jackson spent most of the winter break asking, "Are y'all getting me a dog for Christmas." (We didn't give in, by the way, cute though he is.) Like my mother before her, Jeanette is prohiting football, which I agree with. I'm doing my best to steer them toward the sports that conflict with the football season and don't generally leave you with head and knee injuries -- golf, tennis, soccer.

But I'll tell you, it's a lot easier to hide football from boys in New York than it is in Texas. As someone corrected me recently, "No, it's not a religion. It's more than a religion."

What I do miss are the people I love who we left behind in New York. There are a lot of them. Family and friends. When you're a couple with two young kids, making new friends takes time, so we still feel isolated and lonely at times. The kids are making their friends, and thriving. Austin is a great town for kids: Massive parks, lots of playgrounds, and "Kids-Eat-Free" deals on every day of the week.

Professionally, we're both doing well. Diego and Jackson like their school. We are, in a word, happy.

One thing they say about Texas is true: It is BIG. And I could say a lot more about it, and probably will. Some other time.

So, for those of you who have taken the time to mosey on down to the Old-School and check out my blog, I won't say thank you.

I'll say, "Y'all come back and see me, y'hear?"